Berkeley Landmarks :: Joseph W. Harris House, Part 1

Joseph W. Harris House

2300 Le Conte Avenue, Berkeley, CA

Daniella Thompson

Harris house in 1937
(photo courtesy of Billie Jean D’Anna)

Harris house today
(photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004)

18 October 2004

Brooklyn-born Joseph W. Harris (1897–1978), founder of the Call Me Joe men’s clothing store in downtown Berkeley, had a penchant for International Style architecture. This wasn’t unusual in the 1930s, when Art Deco was all the rage, permeating industrial design, commercial art, and the movies (even Disney’s animated films of the ’30s displayed numerous Deco traces). In downtown Berkeley, several prominent civic and commercial buildings proudly display the Streamline Moderne and Zigzag Moderne marks. Residential architecture, however, was much less affected by the Moderne movement, and although some Deco-inspired apartment buildings are sprinkled around town, the Harris house is the only notable example of a Streamline Moderne single-family home.

In 1936, Harris commissioned the architect John B. Anthony to build him a residence on a gore lot at the fork of Hearst and Le Conte avenues, just north of the U.C. campus. The lot had been empty since the Berkeley Fire of 1923. Earlier, a shingled two-flat building with an overhanging round turret had occupied this space. It was captured by a movie camera from a moving streetcar in 1906. According to a 1907 block map, the owner of record was Roberta Y. Hill.

2300 Le Conte Ave. in 1911 (Sanborn fire insurance map)

The original building in 1906 (photo: a frame from the film “A Trip to Berkeley, Cal.”).

2300 Le Conte Ave. in 1950 (Sanborn fire insurance map)

Repeated curves on three levels are traced in the map on the left (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004)

Extant records of John B. Anthony’s Berkeley buildings suggest that the Harris residence was his seventh commission in this town. Building permits bearing his name begin in 1935, the first two projects having been the Colonial Revival Van T. Ellsworth house at 1643 Le Roy Avenue and the David Weeks house at 1540 Le Roy. The University of Washington Libraries’ Architect Database suggests that Anthony hung out his shingle in 1936, having previously worked as a draftsman for Ashley and Evers (1928–1930), Timothy L. Pflueger (1930–1932), and William W. Wurster (1934–1936), all in San Francisco.

John Buyko Anthony (1891 or 1896–1979) was born in Newark, NJ, and came to California at a young age. Mildred Slater (Mrs. Louis) Stein, who grew up in Oakland, knew him in high school. Anthony attended U.C. Berkeley, obtaining a B.A. in 1922 and an M.A. the following year. In an oral history, Mildred Stein told BAHA that Anthony went on to study in Paris and, in 1939, designed a “French-style” house for her and her husband at 216 Amherst Avenue, in north Berkeley.

Harris house in the 1970s (photo: Elizabeth Crews)

Between 1935 and 1946, Anthony worked on 60 projects in Berkeley, 42 of which were new constructions. He designed in various idioms; New England– or French-style Colonial Revival plans emerged from his office side-by-side with strikingly modern buildings. Typically, his residential work was far more traditional than his commercial output. Among the latter were the modern Campus Textbook Exchange at 2470 Bancroft Way (1939) and a Hertz Driv-Ur-Self dealership at 2354 Shattuck Avenue (1946). The Harris House is one of very few audacious residential designs by Anthony, thanks, no doubt, to its owner’s taste.

For 2 tickets to visit “Tony” Anthony designed house: “Steamboat Round the Bend”
(Donald Olsen’s memo, 21 August 2004, BAHA archives)

Architect Donald Olsen, who called the Harris house “Steamboat ’round the Bend,” knew “Tony” Anthony during World War II, when both worked at the Kaiser shipyards in Richmond. Although Olsen remembers that Anthony “converted a hotel into a hospital,” it is not clear whether such a project actually existed, given that neither the converted Fabiola Hospital in Oakland nor the Richmond Field Hospital is credited to him. On the other hand, Anthony could very well have had a hand in designing the General Warehouse in Shipyard No. 3, whose decorative elements—ribbed wall sections, portholes, round half-columns and corners—mirror those found in the Harris residence.

General Warehouse, Richmond Shipyard No. 3 (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004)

Looking from the sunken entrance foyer toward the living room. Door to kitchen is on the left. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004)

Anthony and Harris were both members of the Exchange Club, as was the contractor for the Harris house, S.M. Shapero. The satisfied client soon gave Anthony a second commission that became his most visible Berkeley building: the Call Me Joe store (1938–1958), rechristened House of Harris in 1939. It was located in Berkeley Square, former site of the Southern Pacific downtown station. Around 1946, Anthony designed another Call Me Joe store, this time for the Gallo Wine Company in Modesto, CA.

The transplanted New Yorker Joseph W. Harris commissioned a thoroughly urban house, with opulent detailing and rich materials that would have been at home in the swankiest Manhattan penthouse. Hard-edged surfaces abound: stainless steel, aluminum, marble, mirrors, and glass block. Yet this quintessentially man-made environment was open to the outdoors. With no space for a garden on the tight lot, the deep balcony off the living room served as a sunny patio at a time when the neighborhood was sparsely built and full bay views were to be had even from the ground floor.

Joe Harris on his open balcony, reflected in the fireplace mirror, 1937 (photo courtesy of Billie Jean D’Anna)

Looking southwest toward Hearst Ave. The crescent-shaped sunroom echoes the rounded contours of the living room. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004)

Looking northwest toward Arch St. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004)

A set of glass doors (seen in the photo above) used to separate the living room from the balcony. It was probably in the 1960s that the balcony was enclosed, the doors removed, and the new sunroom made part of the living room.

Photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004

The octagonal dining room (photo: DT, 2004)

In the living room, the pi�ce-de-resistance is the stainless-steel fireplace, flush with its floor-to-ceiling mirror surround. Built-in fluorescent light flank the mirror behind translucent panels. The semi-circle of the marble hearthstone echoes the exterior and interior curves of the house.

Photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004

In contrast with the hard brilliance of the living room, the dining room is an enveloping, wood-paneled space. This octagonal room makes good use of all four corners by tucking closets into them. The closet between the living room and the kitchen is a built-in liquor cabinet complete with mirror-backed shelves and a folding stainless-steel table for mixing cocktails. This closet also provides rear access to one of the two fluorescent lamps flanking the living-room fireplace.

Dining room (photo: DT, 2004)

Liquor cabinet (photo: DT, 2004)

Original 1930s kitchen (photo: DT, 2004)

Remarkably, the kitchen has seen little in the way of alterations over the past six and a half decades. All the cabinetry is original, as well as the stainless-steel counters and the light fixtures. The fold-down electric cooking rings, probably from the ’60s, are cleverly tucked out of the way when not in use, freeing up counter space.

Photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004

Photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004

Fold-away electric cooktop (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004)

Original 1930s dishwasher (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004)

Part Two: The Stairwell

Part Three: The Second Floor

Part Four: Joe Harris at Home

Part Five: Description of the House in 1936


The Joseph W. Harris House was designated a City of Berkeley Landmark on 21 June 1976. It is listed in the California State Historic Resources Inventory.

See also: Call Me Joe/House of Harris store



Copyright © 2004–2019 Daniella Thompson. All rights reserved.